The Fall Campaign in Virginia, 1862

July 31, 1862

By General John Pope, Late of Falling Butte, Minnesota (a.k.a. Joe Shaffer)

  • The Fall campaign of 1862 opened in early August as Union Armies under George McClellan undertook evacuation of the James River Peninsula after a series of bloody but inconclusive battles with the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee. McClellan intended to reunite with the Union Army in Northern Virginia commanded by yours truly. His plan involved a swift movement by water to Aquia Creek and then an overland march to capture Culpepper. This would set the stage for an advance on Richmond from the north before winter set in. McClellan, however, proved uniquely unable to gauge the value of intelligence he received from Pinkerton et al. He consistently under-estimated Confederate strength and intentions in the Shenandoah Valley and he consistently over-estimated enemy stength around Culpepper.

  • As "Little Napoleon" embarked and moved troops, my army engaged in a series of manuvers intended to concentrate forces, protect the routes to Washington and position myself to link up with McClellan. These objectives were not always congruent and it was exceedingly difficult to accomplish all these while at the same time mollifying Washington politicians who feared for their own hides and George McClellan who seemed to believe I should carry the war to conclusion before he arrived. With hindsight it is now clear that I and my rebel counterpart danced around each other, both missing grand opportunities to strike a heavy blow. It was at the small hamlet of Sperryville that plans began to unravel (and a legend born). Union troops under my direct command intercepted a Confederate blocking force outside the Valley. My troops fought a grand action, battering the Confederate left. Just as my troops positioned themselves to turn the flank and isolate the remaining brigades, volunter troops from Pennsylvania inexplicably lost heart when they came under fire from the last remaing Confederate battery on the left. The Pennsylvanians bolted from their positions triggering a general route by other troops in the line. My headquarters was able to rally most of the men, but too late. The Confederates had reinforced their lines and my men were spent.

  • This loss, I swiftly learned, opened the door for General Longstreet to move several thousand Confederate troops into the Valley for a strike towards the key positions at Front Royal and Harper's Ferry. My warnings to McClellan went unheeded too long as he continued to disembark troops in Aquia Creek. These troops were too far from the Valley to have any impact in the critical battles to follw. Furthermore, once the need to move these troops overland quickly was finally realized, the operation severely taxed our rolling stock and created a general logjam on the railroads. McClellan finnaly directed his remaining corps to disembark farther north, in Baltimore, but the stage was set for disaster.

  • Longstreet's advance up the Valley was opposed by an inferior Union force. These troops did have the advantage of terrain, however, as Longstreet was confined to a relatively narrow front. A fight for the bridges over the confluence on the North and South branches of the Shenandoah outside of Front Royal held promise of a vital delay, but the Union commander on the scene relied upon a plan that required his engineers destroy a stone bridge on his flank. When they failed to do this Confederates overwhelmed the flank, rendering the Federal troops totally vulnerable. They withdrew towards Harper's Ferry fighting a delaying action the whole way.

  • At Harper's Ferry troops under Dixon Miles once again lost another opportunity. Miles deployed his few brigades to resist the van of Longstreet's troops, and he deployed two full brigades in defilade in a wooded area southeast of the road. The Confederates took the bait and forced the small stream crossings the Federal troops had selected for their defensive lines. With a full division astride this natural obstacle, Miles ordered his hidden reserve to strike and cut off half of the enemy troops. Miles, however, had fallen prey to his vice and Union troops once again lost their nerve. Miles had been drinking heavily throughout the fight, likely to assuage his fragile nerves. Thus emboldened, he set out to lead the great attack, only to be struck from his mount by a Southern tree branch. The sight of their leader suddenly and inexplicably prone once again set off a series of routes. By the time the troops had been returned to good order, the opportunity was gone. The Confederates were deployed in superior numbers. The Union withdrew, effectivley surrendering Harper's Ferry. With these actions, the Union forces were permanently placed on the defensive.

  • In the next installment I will relate accounts of some of the greatest battles ever fought on this continent. I will also describe how George McClellan's mighty opinion of himself led him to become the guest of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, and I will recount my own struggles to maintain control of a restive population in Virginia, or at least of one Soutern Belle. For now, I must bid you adieu. The Sioux call for my attention.

    General John Pope.